What separates the conservative political agenda from the liberal? A host of issues, almost all of which can be traced back to a pivotal divergence occurring during the last century. More than any single policy disagreement, what best characterizes the rift between Right and Left is their incompatible theories of knowledge, the conflict between their beliefs about what constitutes genuine sources of understanding.
To suggest that epistemological variances – or disagreements concerning the sorts of things human beings can know and how they come to know them – lie at the heart of discussions on how best to organize the state and deploy its resources is nothing extraordinary. Since antiquity, epistemology has featured prominently in debates over the role and function of governments and the effectiveness of political ideologies. For Plato, only philosophers capable of transcending the boundaries of the sensible world to behold the form of the Good could effectively lead the polis. For the nominalist and materialist Hobbes, the purpose of government was practical, firmly rooted in humankind’s embodied needs. Defining the scope of human knowledge yields a profile of the capable statesman, and points towards an ideal goal around which to orient the state’s apparatus. Our theory of knowledge informs our worldview and focuses our political aspirations in ways little else can.
Conservative commentators in modern times have frequently recognized the central role occupied by epistemology in formulating political agendas, sometimes engaging in epistemological critique to implicate their opponents. Eric Voegelin labeled an indulgent gnostic fantasy the misguided urge by totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to “immanentize the eschaton.” In their confused effort to realize an ideal order or metaphysical goal amidst the temporal world, Marxists and Fascists dispensed ruthlessly with political opponents who defied their uncompromising eschatological vision. The fantastic violence of that century, thought Voegelin, stemmed from a radical misappropriation of Christianity’s salvific narrative in the name of historical progress and the fulfillment of human destiny. Believing themselves to possess special knowledge about the final aims of humankind, murderous ideologues perpetrated an unremitting campaign of terror against “non-believers.” As that catastrophe reveals, epistemological commitments can motivate horrendous evils.
While our current political miasma bears little resemblance to that period of extreme hostility, the nature of the conflicts mapping our contentious terrain remain fundamentally epistemological. There may be no more profitable way of illuminating the tensions animating our political scene than exploring the irreconcilable epistemologies held by its opponents. Virtually all the ethical disagreements between Left and Right, religious and irreligious, originate in epistemological differences – competing visions of what we can reliably know. And even those issues not obviously related to questions concerning how humankind obtains reliable knowledge of moral absolutes still involve epistemological disputes about the essence of human nature, its vocation and its status in the universe.
Unlike the European crisis of the 20th century, today’s radicals adhere to a more austere, but no less pernicious, epistemological vision. Whereas the totalitarians clung to a distorted conception of immanent deliverance, their modern counterparts aim to abolish any transcendent reference point that might impose limits on human activity. Modern progressives deny that we may confidently learn ultimate truths about our natures and destiny, immanent or otherwise, and so insist on absolute freedom to forge their own eschatologies uninhibited by tradition, religion or conventional norms. Their dogma is a negative one, buttressed by the assumption that science supplies the only reliable source of knowledge and that speculative metaphysical conjecture has benighted rather than illumined human inquiry.
In this respect, progressive radicals today share little in common with their Marxist forbears. Whatever their faults, 20th century ideologues of the left maintained a sense of historical progress, albeit a materialized one. Marx’s intellectual indebtedness to Hegel infused a teleological orientation to his vision of human destiny, despite having jettisoned Hegel’s most extravagant metaphysical propositions. For Marx, history was still rational, still working towards a goal that could be discerned not, as Hegel had said, in Spirit’s growing awareness of its freedom, but in the workers’ unrest and eventual liberation from exploitation. Violence was authorized precisely because Stalin knew what his opponents didn’t: history was on his side.
On the Right, the story was not much different. While Hitler may have swooned over Nietzsche’s Teutonic ruminations and super-heroic evocations, he ignored almost everything else Nietzsche said about the errors of metaphysics. The true sources of Nazi intellectual justification lay elsewhere, in a complex web of poetic-mythical and hyper-nationalistic literary traditions that gradually began to supplant orthodox Christianity as the overarching narrative binding together German society. Myth ratified extreme measures, and like the Left, the National Socialists understood themselves to be instruments of destiny operating in the service of the Volk.
By the end of the Second World War, the saccharine optimism in the authority of metanarratives exploded. Not surprisingly, the Allies voiced the strongest condemnation, having paid the high price for the Axis’ ideological waywardness. The growing dominance of analytic philosophy in Anglo-American universities, already on the rise by the beginning of the century, is evidence of widespread suspicion concerning metaphysics and speculative reflection, and formed part of the response to the atrocities committed in the name of unfounded epistemologies. Hegel was effectively banished from the English-speaking academic scene until his gradual resurgence during the 1970s. By that time, the damage was done and metaphysics abandoned as a serious endeavor.
Today’s radicals are offspring of that same skeptical mentality, essentially positivists, empiricists, pragmatists and logicians contemptuous of the impulse to draw unifying inferences from their disjointed discoveries of the world. The risk is too grave, the costs too high, they think, and religion is the most pernicious risk of all. Better to abstain from uncertain speculations than repeat the errors of the past, even if it means abandoning the very theoretical resources that might militate against such recurrences. Any appeal to absolute knowledge is in their minds tantamount to totalitarian subjugation and violence.
Normatively, this greatly impoverishes the progressives’ arsenal, for without the epistemological means of deducing universal moral prescriptions they must now appeal to a sort of intuitive, consequentialist calculus that makes no reference to transcendent truths, goals or ideal states. All is contingent, in flux, and subject to revision in light of emerging cultural norms and gender orientations. Ignorance is their credo, and pretentions to knowledge evidence of authoritarian coercion. They fight not on the basis of any established truth, but on the assumption that no one truth reigns supremely. Only boundaries opposing individual self-assertion pose threats to the progressive agenda.
Where does this leave the state? In disarray, and at the mercy of a plurality of mutually exclusive interests clamoring for preeminence. The solution is obvious – restore metaphysics as a credible means of obtaining knowledge and thereby validate invocations of order, permanence and goodness, among the latter of which belong the virtues of civility and genuine tolerance. The challenge remains an epistemological one, and the adversaries are familiar foes – Hume, Kant, Nietzsche and the neo-positivists of our era.
To rehabilitate modes of knowing that fell into disrepute after the transgressions of the 20th century, humankind’s rational faculties must be shown to be more expansive, more encompassing than scientific progress requires. Art and ethics must once more regain their rightful place as true subjects of knowledge, not merely categories of personal preference. Values must reclaim their prominence as indispensable tools of statecraft. And a middle ground must be plotted between uncompromising adherence to violence-breeding ideology and total capitulation to culture-eroding nihilism.
The crisis may have to get worse before awareness grows of the need for better weapons to combat the political decay in which we languish. Let us hope that the calamities of the last century, in which the devastating role of epistemology was so convincingly displayed, embolden our commitment to defending the virtues of a moderate but formidable vision of human knowledge.